Robin White’s Beginner's Guide to Gilbertese

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Thursday 15 August 2013
Asdollah-Zadeh

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Gallery Guide Shahriar Asdollah-Zadeh introduces work by Robin White on show in the Toi Aotearoa exhibition.

The second Gibbs gallery includes 1980s artworks. Robin White’s woodblock prints, made during her time in Kiribati, are included. They are titled: I am doing the washing in the bathroom (1983), The Canoe is in the bareaka (1983), Michael is sleeping on the bed (1983) and The Maneaba (1983). These prints, made soon after White's arrival in Kiribati, comprise a series titled Beginner's Guide to Gilbertese. They relate to her adjustment to living in a new environment and culture and learning a new language.

Robin White studied at Elam School of Fine Art in the 1960s under the guidance of teachers like Colin McCahon. White is well known for her refined painting style and screen prints of rural New Zealand landscapes, towns and the people. She has produced many images associated with New Zealand identity.

White’s hard-edged paintings are an important contribution to the development of the New Zealand 'regionalist' style. Her work from 1968 to 1979 often depicted a single, isolated figure set against the landscape. The layers of sharp lines give her images a clarity that celebrates the vitality of New Zealand’s culture and community. An example of this is her painting Maketu fish and chips (1975) – previously on display in the third room of the Gibbs galleries. This painting captures the feeling of pride in rural towns. The strong elements that had defined her trademark style in the 70s were carried into her woodblock print compositions in the 80s and 90s.

White moved to the Republic of Kiribati in the central Pacific along with her family in 1982. She lived there for 17 years before returning to New Zealand in 1999. White is a Baha’i and her reason for moving to Kiribati with her family was to provide voluntary support for the growing Baha’i community within the region. White’s daily interactions with the local community directly influenced her work.

White had to adapt to her new environment as an artist. Her perspective shifted from being surrounded by the mountainous New Zealand landscape to living on a remote atoll. White soon realised that continuing to paint in oil on canvas was unsuited to the circumstances in her new Pacific island environment. She moved to woodblock printmaking as the process was more manageable and wood was readily available.

The comic book-like compositions tell a story of daily life adapting to the islands. The images of the people she met, where she lived and ate is important in her works. The flat perspective depicts images of domestic life and landscape similar to her New Zealand regionalist painting style. The works represent scenes overlaid with memory and experience. Robin White’s recent projects are a continuation of her interest in working collaboratively with Pacific Island artists, using traditional tapa-making practices as a way of addressing contemporary themes. White has gained experience working with tapa (bark-cloth) during her collaborative projects with local artists in Fiji and Tonga. Her previous installations using this medium, shown in the Sixth Asia Pacific Triennial (Brisbane, 2009), Kermadec group exhibition (Tauranga, Auckland, and Wellington 2012) and Ko e Hala Hangatonu: The Straight Path at Two Rooms Gallery in March this year. 

Image credits (clockwise from top left):
Robin White
I am doing the washing in the bathroom 1983
woodblock 
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, purchased 1983

Robin White
The Canoe is in the bareaka 1983
woodblock 
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, purchased 1983

Robin White
Michael is sleeping on the bed 1983
woodblock 
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, purchased 1983

Robin White
The Maneaba 1983 
woodblock 
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, purchased 1983